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Workscapes of the Future

None of Mark Chow's previous assignments prepared him for what he experienced as leader of the Workscapes of the Future experiment.

Main story: The Future is Younger Than You Think

More: Brainstorming the Future, Cruise (Out of) Control, Little Hands Teach Big Hands, Who's Teaching Whom?

Mark Chow, 43, has worked at Xerox PARC since 1983, almost always on cutting-edge technologies and far-out ideas. But none of Chow's previous assignments prepared him for what he experienced as leader of the Workscapes of the Future experiment.

The project became a case study in youthful exuberance and wide-eyed speculation. "These kids were 'native technology speakers' and didn't have to learn computers as a second language," Chow says. "Their work practices were like ours, and different, at the same time."

As the project unfolded, Chow kept a weekly email diary. These excerpts capture the group's energy and creativity. They illustrate how a new set of mental models - a different approach to working and thinking - can shake up even as free-wheeling a place as Xerox PARC.

Week 1: Warm-Up Exercises

Working with younger students is a little like touching the future. They're fully formed humans, but they're different from you and me. I can see why everyone got excited about this project. These students are bright, motivated, energetic, and can detect a phony a mile away. The facade of the big corporation only goes so far, and then it's Dilbert-land.

The first exercise was to capture everyone's conception of work. We divided the students into three teams and got a collage (spatial representation), a QuickTime movie (time representation), and a hyperlinked set of Web pages. The student researchers tackled issues of dress, work environment, money, status, quality of life, stress, social Darwinism, even Maslow's hierarchy of needs. (I swear, one of the 15-year-old kids brought up Maslow)

Week 2: Quick Studies

On Monday we asked the students to examine jobs they didn't know very well. This was an individual exercise and most used the Web to present their results. They were quite adept at turning around assignments in short order. The Web pages they created had animated pictures, links, backgrounds, and good analyses of the topics. They have mastered the art of searching and swiping flashy graphics. But the days of short Web exercises are over and now we turn to longer assignments.

Week 3: Interim Report

We proposed the idea of doing an interim presentation at the end of the week. To keep expectations high, we invited an audience, the Hypermedia Authoring Group at FXPAL. We imposed a deadline, a presentation format (on a Xerox LiveBoard, a six-foot-tall pen-based computer), and a critique. We continually dropped hints about using printed material, but the first point of reference was always the Web.

The presentation involved a time line divided into three parts: 3 million BC to 650 years ago; 650 years to 50 years; and 50 years ago to the present. It explored tools and technologies, social environments, and economics. We tried to give the students a hard time on the critique, but they knew exactly what they were doing.

Weeks 4 and 5: New Media

I introduced MediaSpace (audio and video communications links) to the lab. Before I could explain how it was done, it was done. Cable got strung through the ceiling, cameras got hooked up. The students had recorded their own newscast before I even got all the pieces carried in.

Another thing we noticed was the incredible power of video games among the students. So graduate researcher Kasey Asberry created a board game - an interactive, cooperative, progressive game that gradually built an entire world of workers whose status was based on a number of "what-if" scenarios. On Wednesday, we had a formal "what-if" brainstorming session. We covered a wall with the ideas, which fed into the board game.

Week 6: The Presentations

The topics and approaches the students chose were extremely different from one another, signifying the independent nature of their thinking. Amir decided that he would write a play about the role of technology in the future. Ryan was developing his version of the digital desk. Jessica decided that speech recognition was going to be in our future. Kris looked at communication. Gautam and Andrew were debating the psychology of work and customizable environments.

The methods of presentation were radically different as well. The students used email, butcher paper, whiteboards, chalkboards, foamcore, sculpture, Microsoft Word documents, notebooks, digital cameras, videotape, MediaSpace, books, papers, animation, audio CDs, CD-ROMs, microphones, and movies. Some made physical models, some used the Web, some used Power Point, one made a videotape, one used a poster.

It went pretty well, though. These students are smart enough that they never get challenged at school - they always leave schoolwork until the last minute and get As. This was a project that demanded more. There were a number of good questions, which the students both appreciated and fielded very well. There was no fear that they were outclassed in any way. This was a confident group of young researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.